4 Methods to Boost Student Engagement

The fall semester is almost upon us! To kick off the new academic year, let’s talk about student engagement. 

It’s clear that education has an engagement problem. In 2021, the Iowa Department of Education found that only 45.7% of students felt engaged. In higher education, students are also struggling to stay engaged in their learning. In subjects like anatomy and physiology where memorization is crucial, it can be even more difficult to maintain student attention and involvement. 

Let’s talk about four approaches that can help your students practice active learning.

1. Gamification 

When you gamify something, you add game elements like strategy and competition to non-game tasks. Students are more motivated to complete tasks and learn more material when there’s a gamified element.

When students complete a gamified task, they feel a sense of accomplishment and achievement that goes beyond the sense of achievement when they learn something new or get a good grade. 

Students’ competitive drive makes them want to succeed. This also motivates them to reflect on their performance as they ask themselves, "What mistake kept me from winning and how can I win next time?"

In fact, motivation is one of gamification’s biggest strengths. 

In his TED Talk “Gamification in Higher Education,” medical doctor and educational researcher Dr. Christopher See points out that “The beauty of game-based learning is not that it’s easy, but that you get people to do it themselves; people do the hard work themselves.” 

For example, imagine a game where students need to answer questions correctly to earn points for their team. A student who gets a question wrong is incentivized through the game to reflect on why they answered incorrectly and what they can do to improve. After all, they don’t want to let down the rest of their team. 

In addition to increased motivation, games require focus. They also require students to interact with the material in a strategic way, offering opportunities to incorporate high order thinking. Game elements like leaderboards, levels, or a “progress bar” can give students a structure to think about how much they’ve accomplished in their learning. 

flashcard2Flashcards can be incorporated in gamification! GIF from Visible Body Suite.

Gamification is one of the most effective ways to get students engaged in learning. If you want to learn more about incorporating gamification, check out our blog post 5 Ways to Gamify Your A&P Classroom with Visible Body.

2. Focus on practical applications

Many unengaged students grumble, “When are we actually going to use this?” 

When delivering information, it’s important to think about the “So what?” factor. Focusing on practical applications means that students achieve not just rote memorization but an in-depth understanding of the information. This develops thinking skills higher on Bloom’s taxonomy: application and analysis. 

Since many students in A&P classes are pursuing careers in the health field, many instructors focus on clinical applications. 

Take Dr. Cara Sandholdt at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at University of California, Davis. During labs, Dr. Sandholdt’s students discuss anatomy and physiology through a clinical lens. Instead of just asking her students to name structures and functions, she asks them to reflect on their experiences in and out of the classroom and apply that knowledge. For example, what would the diaphragm look like with a patient with COPD? 

My project (16)Image from Visible Body Suite.

Not only does this approach prepare students for their future careers, it also reinforces information as students see its importance. 

Clinical applications often align with problem-based learning, a teaching approach that focuses on problem solving over strictly factual information. In addition to engaging students through challenging them to think critically about the information, problem-based learning is effective: a 2015 study of 193 medical students found that problem-based learning improved problem solving and critical reasoning skills.

3. The flipped classroom model 

In a flipped classroom model, students receive information as homework and work on activities and problems during class time. 

There are many benefits to a flipped classroom model, like how it allows students to learn at their own pace, but importantly, it frees up time in the classroom for activities, collaboration, and higher-level thinking. During class time, students aren’t passively ingesting information via lecture, they’re interacting with their peers and their instructor. 

The flipped classroom works. In a study of 217 students pursuing their doctor of physical therapy degrees, flipped classroom students had higher grades and performance on high-level analytical questions than their traditional peers. Flipped classroom students seemed to retain their knowledge better, performing at a higher level in their kinesiology course the next semester. Additionally, researchers at the University of Ulsan in South Korea studied flipped classroom and traditional classroom undergraduate nursing students in an anatomy and physiology course. Flipped classroom students improved their problem solving skills and were more satisfied with the course than students enrolled in the traditional class. 

As Dr. Matthew J. Mason of Cambridge University’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience notes, many instructors don’t see a problem with the traditional model of teaching because they themselves thrived in that environment. He also notes that after changing to a flipped classroom model, his students reported that they had a deeper understanding of the material and that it helped them prepare for exams. The flipped classroom’s interactivity engaged his students and led to positive outcomes. 

4. Team-based learning 

Team-based learning is typically used in conjunction with a flipped classroom. It’s an approach that breaks the class into small groups who work together to solve problems. 

Team-based learning typically goes something like this: students prepare for class by reading or watching lectures, then they go through a readiness assessment to make sure they understand the material and can fully participate in the activity. In their teams, students tackle a problem—for example, a case study. They then develop an answer to the problem and present that answer. 

When breaking students up into teams, it’s important to assess the individuals. As University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Teaching and Learning suggests, try thinking about what characteristics (like age, major, or anxiety level) would make it easier or more difficult for a student to succeed in your class, and make sure those characteristics are evenly distributed across teams. A diverse team ensures that each student can bring something different to the table. It’s worth mentioning that student-selected teams actually tend to perform worse than instructor-selected teams. 

Dr. Pat Carley of American International College used team learning in his hybrid gross anatomy class, using breakout rooms to facilitate remote learning. Each group worked through assignments and quizzes together using Visible Body Courseware as a “virtual text” and learning platform. 

Students are engaged in the material through the problem-solving and social aspects of team-based learning, and that is often reflected in their assessments—for example, a meta-analysis of team-based learning in China found that overall, students’ test scores increased significantly and their attitudes towards learning improved.

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